Pádraig Hoare: The Monday Interview - Carving opportunity out of adversity

When Pat Lucey and Colum Horgan faced the axe from Motorola — along with 300 of their fellow employees — in 2007, they turned the situation around to start their own company, Mr Lucey tells Pádraig Hoare

Facing unemployment in early 2007, there was gloom in the air for 300 workers at mobile phone giant Motorola in Cork.

Two such employees were Pat Lucey and Colum Horgan. Veterans of the business, both men worried about their futures. Not even in their wildest business dreams could the men have realised the success that would follow over the next decade by setting up their project management, consulting and IT services company.

From a fledgling start-up in 2007, Little Island-based Aspira celebrated 10 years with the announcement of an investment of €1.2m in services and a Dublin office expansion. It had 65% accelerated growth in 2015, has now more than 100 employees in Cork and Dublin and is looking at expansion.

Mr Lucey said it was a far cry from the despair of 2007.

“Motorola was struggling in 2007 against the likes of Nokia and Apple and unfortunately Cork was affected. It was like a death in the family. There were people there who had worked since the beginning.

“Quite a few had met and married when there. It was a shock to colleagues. Nobody saw the writing on the wall. There was a lot of doom and gloom in the three months after, it was a harbinger of what was to come,” he said.

The pain of some colleagues sprung Mr Lucey and others into action. “I remember as part of the management team that we had to try something. I pulled a few guys together and we ran a jobs fair internally. We invited a bunch of companies to come — IBM was just setting up in Cork, VMWare had just opened new premises. There were 20-odd companies so it wasn’t all doom. We were giving them direct access to experienced people looking for work. It just changed the tone of things. It went from gloom to people seeing their own self-worth. External validation means a lot. Probably 50 or 60 folks handed in their IBM badge on a Friday and picked up an IBM one on a Monday,” he added.

Along with Mr Horgan, he invested redundancy money into Aspira. “When I cleaned out my office, I found the CV I had sent in there. On the CV under the career goals, I had that one day I wanted to run my own business. It had been forgotten because I wasn’t thinking about a great idea for a business, I had projects to manage in Motorola. But it did get me thinking — if I don’t do it now, I will never do it,” he said.

Mr Lucey said he and his business partner have the support of their wives to thank for their success in 2017. “My wife was a key stakeholder because she gave up her job when we had children. Basically, it would be taking the redundancy payment from the company and investing it in a new company. We said I’d give it six months and see where we go. We had our 10-year celebration recently and Colm and I took the opportunity to acknowledge our wives — my wife Maria and Colm’s wife Una took the same risk.

“It required an unreasonable amount of time and energy. I don’t think I could reasonably ask my wife to put up with what she did at the time. In fairness, they provided us with unreasonable amounts of support and there is no way we would exist now without that.”

It hasn’t been all plain sailing — the economic crash took its toll — but Aspira has not just recovered but thrived. Mr Lucey said he doesn’t want a false message to go out to budding business owners that everything will go swimmingly.

“It wasn’t all plain sailing. When we set up, it was very good. 2008 was good. 2009 we took a hit because a lot of customers ran out of money. You have a 47% chance of winning at blackjack — it’s something like 10% in your own business. You hear stories like mine where the business survived, but we don’t hear of those who didn’t. Project management is what I do most of the time. In that, you identify your risks, take action to avoid them, you mitigate and transfer them, etc. A lot of times people are driving at night with blinkers rather than try and identify the things that could be a problem and take action,” he said.

He added: “The message I am giving to entrepreneurs is that I love it, it’s liberating and rewarding but don’t go in with blind optimism. Be optimistic but identify things that could go wrong and take action to make it less likely. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to set up on my own. I like to talk through problems with someone. The fact that Colum was on board, a colleague for 10 years in Motorola, was great. You have someone to bounce ideas off, a shoulder to cry on if you need it.” The future is bright, even with Brexit, he said.

“We’re a Cork-headquartered company but Dublin has been an area for growth in recent years. We are evaluating options in Europe and we’ve narrowed that down. We set up an office in Dublin in 2014. Now we’re beside Google and Facebook on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. We’ve been in the Deloitte Fast 50. It’s been quite the journey but there is more to come, I believe.”


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